By on July 16, 2019

Do you remember what the compact SUV market looked like in 1989? Me either. But it was a time where every Japanese manufacturer (except Honda, obviously) offered a three-door SUV. Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Isuzu all vie for your 1989 dollars.

Note: American market promo photos are hard to find, so foreign market photos shown.

Nissan Pathfinder

Nissan fielded a Pathfinder for the first time in 1987, in response to offerings from American manufacturers that were on sale since early in the decade. The first generation (WD21) was based on the Nissan Hardbody pickup, and shared its engines and four-wheel drive system. The last model year for the two-door Pathfinder was 1989 – it grew more doors in 1990 and never looked back. Today’s base model selection employs a 2.4-liter inline-four. 106 horsepower and 137 lb-ft of torque are handled via the four-speed manual transmission. The stylish grille slats at the front are also handy rust importers.

Mitsubishi Montero

Mitsubishi started production of the first generation Pajero in 1982, which it sold around the globe under various adventures in branding: Dodge, Hyundai, and Colt all badged their own versions. Initially a two-door model, Mitsubishi quickly introduced the long-wheelbase five-door in 1983. North American dealers received Monteros in the very first model year, and the range expanded to the five-door version in 1989. The base model (our selection) arrives via a 2.6-liter inline-four producing 109 horsepower and 142 lb-ft of torque. The manual transmission has five speeds, and since it’s not a V6 maybe it’ll leak less oil.

Isuzu Trooper

Isuzu beat Mitsubishi to the punch with their Trooper, offered since 1981. The Trooper was also branded globally by Holden, Chevrolet, SaangYong, and Subaru. Trooper was available in three- and five-door variants from the get-go. There was a bit of engine shuffling for American-bound Troopers for the first few years. Isuzu tried out a 2.3-liter four cylinder which burned itself up, and a turbodiesel which made 87 horsepower and liked to break apart internally. A new 2.6-liter was used in 1988, but that was replaced with GM’s 2.8-liter V6 from the S-10 for 1989. That means today’s Trooper offers 125 horsepower and a five-speed manual.

Three boxes with a rusty and rough-and-tumble attitude. Which goes home with the Buy?


[Images: Nissan, Isuzu, Mitsubishi]

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38 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Three-door Japanese SUVs in 1989...”

  • avatar

    No 4 Runner, yet we have the Montero. LOL fail.

  • avatar

    I can’t, I like all of these tall boxy SUVs :)

    The first picture is so old that the girl is looking at her mirror and not her phone, how times have changed

    • 0 avatar

      $20 says she’s waiting for her date (named Jason or Randy) who’s driving a 1984 Camaro or Firebird. They are heading to a bowling alley for some terrible pizza, secondhand smoke, and watered down beer. Afterwards will be an awkward makeout session that won’t get any further than second base (although it will be described as “the best ever” in the hallways on Monday), and then when done Mindy/Mandy/whoever she is will go home, try not to wake up Dad, hop on her corded phone, lie on her bed under the New Kids on the Block poster (or could be Guns n’ Roses depending on her tastes) and tell Cindy how awful the date was until her dad bangs on the door and tells her to hang up the damn phone.
      …ahh, the late 80s!!!

  • avatar

    Burn them all.

  • avatar

    Having owned 3 Monteros in the past, I would:

    Buy the Pathfinder – they appear to last forever
    Drive the Montero
    Burn the Trooper – although only by a small margin.

    While I was buying Monteros, they transformed from a utility vehicle to a luxury barge. My preference was for the earlier models with the V6, I don’t really remember if it was any better than the Trooper, but it was what I preferred.

  • avatar

    Buy – Pathfinder. Still looks good today, even though that 4-cyl had no place under that hood. Still see a few on the roads, but not in the best of shape.
    Drive – Montero. Good for a serious off-road adventure, but as I recall, the two-door was rather tippy.
    Burn – Trooper. Decent ute but a lost brand and a lost identity.

    Plus – MAJOR goof not including the detachable lid 2-door 4Runner of this era! That would have been a buy!
    –signed, an ex-4Runner owner!

    • 0 avatar

      Too easy, we make tough decisions at BDB.

      • 0 avatar

        Then I must propose the ultimate tin can of that era…the Suzuki Samurai. Zero power, rusted after 10,000 or so miles, top ripped if you looked at it the wrong way, and could end up shiny-side down if you did a U-Turn too quickly, but damn, they could take a beating all day and ask for more.

        Bonus points if one can be found with the super fun teal spash sticker graphics plastered on the side.

        • 0 avatar

          I’d put the Samurai a class down due to size and cheapness. But I don’t know what to put with it besides the Daihatsu Rocky.


          • 0 avatar

            It really was a class of one – I maybe saw a couple Rockys on the streets, but the Samurais were everywhere for a while. The only comparison might be as a wild card to the inexpensive imported pickups of that era – not sure, but wasn’t the Samurai based on one?

          • 0 avatar

            I guess I could throw a Geo Tracker in there, the comfort choice against the other two.

            I’m almost surprised Isuzu didn’t have a tiny entry here.

          • 0 avatar

            Isuzu Amigo. Think it was around the size of a Sidekick/Tracker

          • 0 avatar


            That works, as long as the Samurai lasted long enough to overlap the other two.

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            Actually saw a Tracker on the way to work today. In decent condition. Tracker, Sunrunner and Sidekick all made in Ingersol at the CAMI plant. They were decent off road.

          • 0 avatar
            Middle-Aged (Ex-Miata) Man

            The Isuzu Amigo was basically a two-door Rodeo and one size larger than the Rocky or Samurai. Nevertheless, in that company it would almost certainly be my “Burn” choice.

  • avatar

    Buy 125hp
    Drive 106hp
    Burn 109hp

    I do not anticipate that I would enjoy any of these though.

  • avatar

    Buy the Isuzu because it is the one I’d still want to own today, in fact I do own a newer Isuzu SUV (stick) and it’s fantastic.
    Drive the Mitsu because it looks cool and like it would be a lot of fun, although I don’t think I’ve ever driven one.
    Burn the Nissan, simply because it’s the last man standing but I think it’s actually a fine vehicle.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Pathfinder- They’re quite well made unlike other 80’s SUV you still see them on the road.

    Drive: Montero- It had an inclinometer which means off road prowess.

    Burn: Trooper- Nice high seating position and boxy design like a poor man’s Range River but the engines can have a short life with sketchy head gaskets.

    Honorable mention: Dodge Raider.

  • avatar

    Buy Nissan – best of the 3

    Drive Isuzu – V6 and 5-speed manual – GM 2.8 had a nice exhaust note

    Burn Mitssubishi – meh

  • avatar

    The Pathfinder is just handsome! I would buy that!

  • avatar

    A friend of mine had an ’89 Pathfinder two-door, the VG V6 with 5-speed. It was pretty decent, and the only major failure was the five-speed, which crapped out before 150k – he replaced it with a junkyard unit. I remember replacing the spark plugs for him – a piece of cake, as the plugs were up top!

  • avatar

    One of my favorite appropriated vehicles when I worked at a new car dealer one summer in college was a Dodge Raider V6 5-speed. By 1989 standards, it was downright peppy. The big-rig style suspended driver’s seat and inclinometer were fun too. Back before drifting was a thing, I used to drop the clutch in 2nd while giving it a Scandinavian flick into tight corners and then standing on the gas for the edification of my passengers. I never took it off-road, which was a good thing under the circumstances. I used a FIAT Spider for that, until the front cross-member broke.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Buy: The Pathfinder. A good vehicle for that era. And with the added bonus that due to the placement on the rear hatch/door of the spare tire, the cameras on the 407 could not read the license plate. Resulting in free trips. I knew someone who kept his Pathfinder primarily for 407 use.
    Drive: The Trooper. Because they always interested me. And so many 3rd world militias can’t be wrong, can they?
    Burn: The Montero. Just because they were so rare. However there is someone in my neighbourhood who appears to be dealing in rare/foreign used cars. He recently replaced the Triumph Princess that was sitting in his driveway beside a VW Type II, with a Montero.

  • avatar

    Buy: the Trooper
    Drive: the Montero
    Burn: the Pathfinder

    My 1995 Pathfinder SEV6 4×4 was a rattling, groaning crapcan by 2003. Minor front end damage caused by rear ending a Diamante totalled it in 2005. I was happy that day.

  • avatar

    My ’89 Trooper SW has the 2.6L engine, not the GM V-6. It is the scalpel to my big axe Suburban.

  • avatar

    You better put some respect on that Mitsubishi Montero. That’s a 12 times Dakar rally winner

  • avatar

    Buy the Pathfinder because I always loved those rins since the day I’d cross the Guanabara buy just to pick up the latest C&D from the one newstand in downtown Rio that sold imported magazines.

    Drive the Montero and burn the Isuzu.

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